I have noticed that most political conversations I have these days, with both friends and foes, start off with the question: “Do you believe that the government and the opposition will finally sit down and negotiate?”
My reply is that while I certainly wish for such negotiations to take place, it is very difficult to evaluate whether there are any chances at all that the current constitutional crisis and the social rift will be reversed or at least modified by means of purposeful negotiations between the government and the opposition or whether the situation will continue to deteriorate in the direction of a complete social and political schism, from which it will be much more difficult to emerge, if at all.
The way I see the current situation, the most serious cause for pessimism on this issue is the basic positions of the two main architects of the current judicial reforms (or constitutional revolution) that are currently on both the national and Knesset agendas: Justice Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) and chairperson of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionist).
Both Levin and Rothman have been giving interviews profusely to all sorts of media outlets, the most interesting of which was an interview Rothman gave to Haaretz correspondent Hilo Galzer, last Friday (the interview with an English translation is available online). The various interviews presented two bright, well-versed ideologists, who are not playing games and are totally committed to deeply held, conservative/right-wing beliefs, which they are determined to realize and both believe can be realized in full in the current political reality in which the government has an automatic Knesset majority.
Neither Levin nor Rothman is inclined to lose their composure, though the less experienced of the two, the 42-year-old Rothman who first entered the Knesset in the elections to the 24th Knesset in 2021, does occasionally raise his voice. Both call upon the opposition to express its positions in the meetings of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, rather than in some neutral forum, external to the Knesset but both claim that they are unwilling to introduce more than cosmetic changes in the bills they have presented.
Thus, the presentations of both members of the opposition and external experts in the committee have no effect whatsoever on the content of the bills, though they appear in the minutes of the committee meetings in full for posterity and thus create a false impression of an actual dialogue taking place.
Last Friday evening, on the Ofira and Berko show on Channel 12, former justice minister Dan Meridor (Likud), who served in the position from 1988-1992, stated that despite misgivings he expressed before the committee when he appeared last month, which dealt with the status of the ministerial legal advisers, nothing he said was reflected in any way in the legislation subsequently presented by the committee to the Knesset plenum for preliminary reading.
Incidentally, neither Levin nor Rothman can be caught making understatements. For example, in his interview with Haaretz, Rothman stated: “The justices of the High Court of Justice are boorish ignoramuses. They do not know how to read. Before they go to law school, they should learn words... There is one apparatus that screws the minorities in the State of Israel. It is called the HCJ. I am removing this apparatus.”
You will not catch Levin making such brazen statements in public, though he insists on repeatedly declaring that all that is moving the opposition to object to his plans is the fact that the old elites are unwilling to recognize that they are no longer in power. Clearly, none of this can constitute the basis for a real, productive dialogue.
Who can be constructive?
WHILE LEVIN and Rothman can at best be prevented from obstructing a dialogue or real negotiations, on the government’s side only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can possibly play a constructive role in them. However, there are two problems here: the first is that the attorney-general has instructed him not to play an active role in the issue of the legal reform, due to the fact that he is in a state of conflict of interest because of his ongoing trial. President Isaac Herzog has asked the attorney-general, Gali Baharav-Miara, to release Netanyahu from the complete prohibition to play an active role but so far, she has refused to comply.
The second is what he refers to as his “gag order,” Netanyahu’s sincerity in seeking negotiations is somewhat questionable in light of statements he keeps issuing, such as the one he delivered to members of the cabinet, last Friday, in which he said, “I wish to equip you with a fist with which to whack them.” By “them,” he was referring to the demonstrators against the legal reforms, whom he claimed to be the very same persons who “demonstrated against the  gas agreement and the COVID vaccinations.”
First of all, the opponents of the COVID vaccinations were not necessarily from the Center/Left (many were, in fact, right-wingers) and the demonstrations against the natural gas deal were rather modest in their dimensions and were based on economic arguments – not on claims that the outline would destroy Israel’s democratic system.
Of course, the blame for the impasse is not only on the government’s side. Opposition leader and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid has not exactly demonstrated enthusiasm about talks and has categorically conditioned them on the government freezing all progress in passing the problematic legislation for at least two months.
Lapid claims that the government’s refusal to freeze the process or even slow it down, demonstrates bad faith, since the amendments that the opposition demands are not cosmetic and parts of the bills will have to undergo some fundamental changes before they will be palatable to the opposition while removing the threat on Israel’s democracy.
The government, in return, argues that Lapid’s rigid position demonstrates obstructionism and that what he is really seeking is chaos, which will lead to the government’s fall. The government claims that the approach of National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz is much more promising to negotiations than that of Lapid. However, even Gantz will need some reassurances from Netanyahu that the goal is a real compromise and nothing less. At the moment, this does not appear to be forthcoming.
To complicate matters further, neither Lapid nor Gantz really control and lead the massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere, many of whose participants are opposed to compromise. On the other side, Netanyahu, too, does not appear to be in full control of his supporters. There is a danger that if he will agree to serious negotiations and to compromises that will satisfy the opposition, he will lose his current majority and then only a real national unity government – not one based on the current coalition to which the National Unity Party and possibly other opposition parties will join – will be able to start an authentic process of reconciliation.
And what about Herzog’s efforts to get the two sides to the negotiating table on the basis of a five-point plan he published two weeks ago? At the moment, this initiative doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But miracles do occasionally happen.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has extensively published journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge.